My son Luis will be delighted to read that I learned something from professional wrestling. Luis is one of those people who talks to you about things even if you’ve made it clear that you are totally disinterested in them. I understand this because I make a living at it.
From a very early age, Luis would insist that we watch things that had a great deal of plot, no action and no resolution. That drove me crazy. We’re talking Pokémon, Naruto, Samurai Jack and professional wresting—anything that whipped up a veritable soufflé of drama and angst that deflated ten minutes removed from heat. Again, I understood this because I worked in politics through his formative years and, in retrospect, my deformative ones.
And, it is not as though Luis introduced me to induced high and violent melodrama. I spent much of my youth in Los Angeles waiting for it to be over. Wrestling and roller derby on TV filled that important block of time between morning cartoons and when my father decided it was finally time to fix him a gin and tonic and light the barbecue. His friend Sol Jaekel would take us to live matches at the Olympic Auditorium downtown, a dingy place that smelled like sweat, urine, hot dogs and beer. Sol told me that wrestling was like Shakespeare performed half-naked and reinterpreted to contemporary politics.
“You see, kid, Mr. Moto personifies Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution, even though he’s actually Japanese, and Freddie Blassie is the struggle for freedom with one goddamn good sleeper lock and some healthy eye gouging. La Pantera Negra is the Mexicans struggling for rights, like Cesar Chavez—don’t eat goddamn grapes even if your old man gets them on sale. That guy there in the bad suit with the rug on his head is Dick Lane, the announcer. His dentures are falling out of his head, but he’s also got a piece of the action here. In a couple minutes, some thug is going to hit someone with a chair, all hell’s going to break loose and Dick’s going to scream, ‘Whoa, Nellie!’”
“How do you know?”
“Because it’s all fake. Same crap every week, just a different script. These guys are masterful storytellers. Everyone gets all worked up, nobody gets hurt—that’s goddamn entertainment. If you don’t like this, you don’t have a brain in your head and a putz in your pants.”
Sol owned a janitorial company, went back to school at age 50, got a PhD in education and went on to become chair of the education department at the University of Hawaii. He taught me that a good intellectual knows what it’s like to clean a toilet.
Wrestling petered out in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and my hero, Little Ralphie Valaderes, skated his last come-from-behind-at-the-last-second-to-win roller derby match around the same time that Chicanos in LA were winning social inclusion. Dick Lane died. Cesar Chavez’s UFW was undercut by the Teamsters. And I forgot about wrestling and roller derby.
In the 1980s, I started working in commercial and political advertising around the same time that a guy named Vince McMahon brought wrestling to national television with a series of grappling political melodramas that played out middle-east hostage crises, glasnost, Solidarity, the acceptance of the French—Perrier and Andre the Giant—terrorism, immigration, the hatred of the French, racism and assorted xenophobia through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush W and Obama presidencies.
As the years and elections wore on, political discourse began to look, feel and sound like the wrestling matches that made fun of it. Bluster, beefcake, high indignation and bullshit won elections—and we figured people would come to their senses once it was time to get down to the real business of managing life outside the theater. Eventually they didn’t.
Last week Luis scored two free tickets from the very unhelpful Sarah Hutchinson to WWE’s Monday Night Raw and insisted that it would be a culturally edifying experience for me to accompany him. In other words, there would be beer there and I could learn that professional wrestling is existentially significant, especially since Batista, a Washington native, is returning to the ring for the first time for what should be a hero’s welcome. As a good father, I went, drank a lot of beer, read The New York Times on my phone and, upon learning that the entire event would last FIVE HOURS, embarked on continuous hopeless moaning that gave Luis a good idea of what it’s like to sit next to him five minutes into a Yom Kippur service. Several complaints were delivered by text and Facebook and I was close to Vining him when he turned from his phone and suggested that maybe I should take a walk around the arena and look at all the weird people. I found several with two eyes on one side of their face and concluded that nobody with an outie should wear a navel ring.
The next morning, I learned that I should have been more attentive. The Washington Post ran a fascinating article on the return of Batista and the changing world of professional wrestling. It seems that independent wrestling magazines, blogs and hardcore fans have realized they can manipulate the outcomes of WWE’s tightly scripted melodrama of heroes, villains and ascendant champions. Rampant script leaks, speculation, gossip, protests and shifting allegiances have turned wresting idiots into geniuses, bad guys into good guys, and strong men into weaklings. In short, a small group of fans are using their power as consumers to dictate where WWE goes, influencing who wins and loses, and the tight reign the McMahon family had over their product has been tossed to the idiot wind of crowdsourcing.
The outcome? Pure chaos, with a high degree of fan polarization, incomprehensible plot lines, an ever-shifting fan base, blather in the ring and a storyline where pretty much nothing is happening outside of an occasional cathartic group stomp of little or no consequence.
Luis caught me reading the Post article and said, “So, you’re reading about Batista and last night?”
“So, what do you think?”
“I can’t figure out if WWE came to Washington, or Washington came to WWE, but Sol Jaekel was right about Shakespearean tragedy.”
“See, I told you you’d like it.”